Cut the Pentagon, Too

Why Obama’s spending freeze should apply to (most of) the military.

Slate on the State of the Union: John Dickerson says Obama returned to the themes he campaigned on.Christopher Beam describes the partisan disharmony on the floor of the House. Bruce Reed praises the president’s reassuring, common-sense blueprint. See images of Obama’s first year as well as previous presidential speeches from Magnum Photos. 

President Obama’s State of the Union address

President Obama’s proposal tonight to freeze discretionary federal spending for three years may or may not be a smart idea. Certainly it is a good idea to exclude, as he put it, “spending related to national security.” I hope he realizes, however, that such spending is not synonymous with the Defense Department budget.

Like the budgets of all bureaucracies, but much more so, the Pentagon is stuffed with entrenched interests, parochial barons, and internecine rivalries.

In the budget-freeze section of his State of the Union address, Obama noted that because of the economy, many American families “are tightening their belts and making tough decisions,” so “the federal government should do the same.” The administration will, he said, need to go through its budget “line by line, page by page, eliminating programs we don’t need or that don’t work.”

There is no good reason to exempt the Pentagon’s budget from this discipline.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to exempt parts of the defense budget from a strict spending freeze. For instance, there should be no arbitrary freeze on spending to support overseas conflicts, for instance in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the broader war on terrorism. There is no way to know now how things will be going in these fights, and how much our forces will need to carry out their missions, in 2011. Because of this, the Pentagon requests much of this money in emergency supplementals to the budget, and these requests should be evaluated on their own terms.

Last year, to his credit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put a good chunk of this war-related spending into the baseline military budget. He noticed an unhealthy chasm between the nation’s soldiers and the Pentagon’s institutional bureaucracy. By putting some of the soldiers’ traditionally unfunded needs into the Pentagon’s budget, he hoped to give those needs some institutional grounding—and to give the bureaucrats a reason to fight for those needs.

In the fiscal year 2010 budget, which was passed last year, that portion of the budget amounted to $170 billion. This included military pay. In the past 10 years, U.S. servicemen and servicewomen have received a cumulative 65 percent pay raise—and, with an all-volunteer military, in an age of multiple wars, they deserve it. So exempt this from a freeze.

However, the total military budget for FY10—not including the emergency supplementals for fighting wars—amounted to $534 billion. The Congressional Budget Office estimates, in a recent analysis, that cost overruns and other unanticipated hikes will boost this sum to $552 billion.

Deduct $170 billion—the hands-off portion—from the $552 billion amount, and that leaves $382 billion. This $382 billion has nothing directly to do with the wars we’re fighting right now. That doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary or unjustified; maybe some of it is, maybe some of it isn’t. But it’s not the stuff of life and death, like the other parts of the budget—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—that Obama wants to exclude from the freeze. It should be subject to the same discipline—the same line-by-line, page-by-page analysis—as the rest of the budget.

Most of this $382 billion consists of weapons systems—combatant ships, fighter jets, submarines, heavy armored vehicles—that the individual branches of the military have been cranking out for decades. If some Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in 1982, woken up in 2009, and looked at the U.S. military budget as an indicator of what was going on in the world, he would assume that the Cold War were still raging.

Yes, the budget also includes the new, high-tech “unmanned aerial vehicles”—the armed drones, as they’re called—which are dominating so much of warfare today. These things didn’t exist in the ‘80s. But they don’t take up much of today’s budget either. They’re cheap. All told, according to the CBO, they and their infrastructure cost about $9 billion a year—barely 2 percent of the total Defense Department budget.

Last year, Obama and Gates announced they would “rebalance” the military budget, cutting or killing certain weapons that were no longer needed because they had little use against the range of plausible threats that we faced now or in the future. The president and the secretary of defense also boosted the production of other weapons that were very much needed in the wars we were fighting now. This was why they stopped production of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, revamped the Army’s Future Combat Systems, and cut back the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer—and why they put more money in drones, new armored personnel carriers, and intelligence sensors.

Next week, in addition to his new budget, Gates will present a new Quadrennial Defense Review—a congressionally mandated document that is supposed to lay out the priorities of U.S. defense policy and link them with defense budgets. A draft of the unclassified QDR (which is floating around and which someone sent me) states, “Further rebalancing may be called for in [the] coming years.” It notes that the shifting shouldn’t go too far; long-term needs are vital as well; the rebalance should still leave us with some kind of balance. However, the review adds, “The Department will continue to look assiduously for savings in less pressing missions and program areas.”

So there’s the admission that Obama should remove the Defense Department’s budget—or $382 billion of it, anyway—from the category of “untouchable.” The fact that Gates cut or killed (and will continue to cut or kill) some major weapons programs means that someone in the Pentagon put the weapon in the budget in the first place.

In other words, there is disagreement, even—especially—within the Defense Department, over whether some programs are needed. These programs reside in budgets that are, as Obama put it, “related to national security.” But they are not all vital to national security. They should not be given a free ride when the rest of the bureaucracy has to make trade-offs.